Sidelines: Cal Ripken World Series makes Shangri-La of Waterville youth baseball

WATERVILLE – Sports are special in every way, but there’s nothing like when a sporting event takes over an entire venue.

From March Madness to the Olympics to the World Cup and state basketball tournaments in Augusta, Bangor and Portland, certain events have special ways of captivating us. Whether locally or across an entire country, there’s a distinct buzz in the air as you’re immersed in the sporting experience for days or even weeks.

In case the banners on Main Street and elsewhere in downtown Waterville haven’t given you a clue yet, this experience is here and now for nearly 200 young baseball players and their families. It’s a spellbinding experience, one that’s about to go far beyond the game for 12 teams that span coast to coast.

“There’s going to be a lot of baseball, but that’s what we’re all here for,” said Weymouth, Massachusetts, team co-manager Shaun Walsh. “It’s great to be here for a week, and we’re ready to play and also see the best that Central Maine has to offer.”

It began Thursday with a skills clinic led by former Major League Baseball players and continued Friday with the opening parade and skills competitions, including a home derby. These events were the perfect appetizers for the main entrance: a tournament that will make our little river town the youth baseball capital of America for the next nine days.

Waterville, as I discovered during my first few months here, has a lot to offer for a city of its size. The culinary scene here has countless hidden gems; the locals are friendly and quick to accept you into their social circles; the location, a stone’s throw from the Belgrade and Winthrop chains of lakes and not too far from Portland or Acadia, is sublime.

Yet for all its advantages, Waterville might not be the place that comes to mind when you think of a destination city. This is not an insult; that’s just a statement of fact for a municipality that isn’t one of the state’s major economic centers (like Portland) or a tourist haven (like Bar Harbor, Kennebunk, or Old Orchard Beach).

For this week and a half at least, the Cal Ripken World Series has changed that. Getting here at Purnell Wrigley Field and nearby Maine’s Fenway Park in Oakland has been the goal of these young baseball players since the start of their seasons in the spring. Being here, right in the heart of this ancient mill town, means dreams have come true.

Waterville competes in the skills challenge with other Cal Ripken teams from across the country on Friday at Little Wrigley Field in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans / Morning Watchman

“There is no place we would rather be at the moment than here,” said Steve McFarland, also co-manager of Weymouth. “The fields are great – our kids can’t wait to see them – and the town is extremely accommodating. It’s incredible; it’s a great experience for these children.

The experience involves all-day action for the 12 teams, who will compete in pool matches over five consecutive days beginning on Saturday and ending on Wednesday. Then the top three teams from each of the divisions will face off in the championship bracket with the bottom three teams competing in the consolation bracket.

The routes taken by these 12 teams to get here are far from the same. As the host team, Waterville automatically qualified for the event when selected as the host last year; some teams, like Laguna, Calif., booked their spots by winning state and regional titles; others, such as Weymouth, qualified by invitation.

“Waiting for the phone call to invite us here was stressful,” said Weymouth slugger Owen Walsh. “We wanted to be here so badly. When we got that phone call saying we were leaving, we were all so excited. Now we’re here, and it’s great. We are ready to play.

In Friday’s skills competition, you wouldn’t have known that hundreds, if not thousands, of miles separated some of the competing teams. The players exchanged phone numbers; coaches meeting for the first time talked as if they were old friends; parents seated on lawn chairs behind the end lines cheered on the kids from other teams as if they were their own.

“One of the things we’re already seeing is that there’s such great camaraderie between the kids,” Waterville co-manager Tim Hubbard said. “They’ve been waiting for a chance to see all the other teams for a while. It’s great to meet people from across the country.

These sports experiences, after all, connect people. This is something that can sometimes be lost in a country of 330 million people spread over nearly 3.8 million square kilometers. With the vastness of America comes different lifestyles for the residents of Waterville, Laguna, Weymouth, and everywhere in between.

But baseball? It’s a constant in the lives of anyone who has called Little Wrigley home for the past two days. From evening practices to ball games and team dinners to little things like washing grass and dirt stains off uniforms, there’s a shared experience – hundreds of them, really – which every person here could testify to.

It’s when you can bring people together like that, I think, that the sport is at its best. The places that are the scenes of these tournaments hold a special place in the hearts and minds of those who wrap themselves there. It’s already happening here, and the games haven’t even started.

“It’s the best thing of my life,” said Weymouth’s Gavin Donlan. “It’s amazing. I can’t wait to play.

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